Introduction: Anthropology in the Age of Executive Orders

From the Series: Demonetization: Critical Responses to India’s Cash(/less) Experiment

Photo by Kamalakannan PM.

In January 2017, a small-town rag picker in India found nearly one million rupees ($14,500) abandoned in a garbage bag on the streets. Two months earlier, bundles of torn ₹500 and ₹1000 notes floated down the Ganges River. These were just a few among hundreds of cases of trashed, abandoned, and burnt cash reported in the aftermath of November 8, 2016, when India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, announced the overnight demonetization of all ₹500 and ₹1000 (approximately $8 and $15) notes of Indian currency.

As the United States awoke on November 9 to a new president-elect, India awoke to a staggering 86 percent of the cash in circulation in that country transformed into invalid tender. In his announcement, Modi described demonetization, or notebandi (literally, note ban), as an attempt to combat the growth of black money, corruption, and financing for so-called terrorists. He characterized these phenomena as “sicknesses” (bimari) that had “sown deep roots” (apni jaddein jamali hai) and could thereby only be removed through dramatic executive measures. Modi’s swift display of sovereign power, his administration’s lack of preparedness for replacing the demonetized currency, and the ever-changing rules of how much money could be exchanged and withdrawn, launched the nation into chaos in the weeks ahead. As Indians scrambled to exchange or launder their now worthless notes and pay for basic necessities, they simultaneously witnessed plummeting vegetable prices, the disruption of food supply chains, the shuttering of small-scale industries, and at least eighty demonetization-related deaths, all arguably amounting to an infringement upon the constitutionally guaranteed right to life.

One approach to understanding the spectacular and sweeping nature of demonetization is to situate it within the agenda and politics of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Following the failures of two consecutive governments (UPA 1 [2004–2009]) and UPA 2 [2009-2014]), which were riddled with corruption charges, Modi’s developmentalist, majoritarian platform promised to clean up government, modernize infrastructure, and extend banking and financial services to India’s masses. As many commentators have noted, the BJP’s 2014 electoral victory was a moment that articulated Modi’s charismatic sovereignty with developmental promise compellingly enough to prompt politically disillusioned masses to vote his party into power. The victory, however, was laced with a majoritarian populism: the BJP has a long-standing and vocal Hindu voter base, whose political ideology combines an upper-caste Hindu identity with a muscular cultural nationalism.

This nationalism was on full display six weeks prior to demonetization on September 26, 2016, when the Indian government ordered what were called “surgical strikes” against supposed terrorist launching pads across the Line of Control in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, resulting in weeks of heightened tensions and saber-rattling between the two countries. Before long, demonetization was being referred to as Modi’s next surgical strike—a precise, sudden move that both shocked and awed.1 Like the September 26 strikes, which were heralded by the media for their defiant stance against cross-border terrorism, demonetization too was praised for its boldness. While critical commentaries by intellectuals and the poor abounded and while opposition parties clamored to condemn the decision, by and large there was little immediate public protest amid the tumult that had seized the country. Five days after his initial announcement, Modi delivered an impassioned speech in which he beseeched Indian citizens to bear the hardship of fifty days of demonetization—the timeframe in which the public had to deposit their old notes—in order to move into what he described as a “cleaner” economy.

In this Hot Spots series, we give close anthropological attention to the rise of shock events (see Klein 2007) such as demonetization that have come to mark the present political moment. From New Delhi to Washington, DC and Manila to Budapest, the world is reeling from executive orders and extrajudicial measures that dramatically upend the lives of millions of people. In such a moment, we suggest that it is crucial to understand the play between the immediate and longer temporalities of such “critical events” (Das 1995). Yet, instead of beginning with the crisis-oriented question “what went wrong?” (see Roitman 2013), the contributors to this series ask: Who cried crisis, and of what kind? Who remained silent and who spoke? What formations preceded this moment and extend from it? In an age of renewed sovereign exceptionalism, the contributors to this Hot Spots series urge attending to the immediate lived reality of executive decision-making, while simultaneously analyzing the longer-term meanings and structures that are at work in these decisions.

On the one hand, as our contributors highlight, demonetization presented itself as a bounded moment of chaos and suffering. Modi’s speeches framed this momentary urgency through his use of terms such as “operation” and “sacrifice” that demanded immediate curative and purifying action on behalf of all citizens (McDowell; Stafford). New cash conversion and money-laundering strategies (Krishnamurthy; Dharia), displays of political might (Björkman), and cross-class intimacies (Patel and Weston) quickly emerged and faded in the compressed time spans for note exchange. Constantly shifting rules and regulations created a heightened atmosphere of anxiety and risk (Trisal; Kar). November and December 2016, our contributors write, were the days of lost contracts, of rotting vegetables, absentee wedding guests, barter systems, and creative cash-exchange schemes.

The puzzling question behind demonetization is why the experience of suffering across the nation did not manifest in mass protests or mobilizations, but in fact brought the BJP back into power in March 2017 in the state of Uttar Pradesh (the state, much like the U.S. state of Iowa, is a bellwether for national political tides). As a number of our contributors note, instead of concerted protest and opposition, the aftermath of demonetization saw a “mass acquiescence” (Vasavi), “apathy” (Aga), and even celebration of the “good politics” (Mathur) played. To make sense of this, our authors situate the immediacy of demonetization against fifteen-odd years of economic liberalization following India’s 1991 debt crisis, exposing the longer histories of the erosion or slow death (see Berlant 2011) of civil society in its wake. When seen through this lens, demonetization emerges less as a singular moment of crisis and more as an extension of the already pervasive conditions of citizenship in many parts of India. It also marks another instance of the transfer of financial and developmental risk onto bodies whose economic precarity is deeply inflected by class, caste, region, religion, and gender.

Despite its highly disruptive and poorly executed nature, demonetization and its spectacular call for mass participation seems to have troubled, coerced, and charmed at the same time. Changing regulatory practices (Trisal), quick hat-tricks to move illegal tender (Dharia; Krishnamurty), bodily proximites demanded by the long queues (Patel and Weston), and the speculations of amateur street anthropologists (Mathur) produced an intimate sort of mysticism. Simultaneously, these contingencies drew attention away from the longer struggles emerging from what A. R. Vasavi calls “economies of neglect” in agriculture (Aga), health care (McDowell), and finance (Kar). The critical event of demonetization saw a collision of affective temporalities—the sudden and mystical combined with longer durations of apathy and neglect—and served at once to reenchant politics and to reinforce the BJP’s power. At the same time, the temporal disjunctures and promissory actions of demonetization produced a kind of faith in the Indian public. While the assurance of good governance and efficiency rang false, the very theatrics of the executive order itself allured and persuaded.

It was only in June 2017 that the first inklings of protest against demonetization rose in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and then Tamil Nadu. Taking an equally spectacular tack, farmers dumped crops, destroyed property, and even protested in the nude while parading human skulls. A strange, yet familiar theatrical sovereignty has greeted these protests and taken hold of contemporary politics. Executive orders and extrajudicial actions abound, hurtling themselves at citizens in new and unexpected ways. The scale and platform for grandiose governmental theater, the “poetics of power” (Geertz 1980, 123) that dramatize the state’s magnificence, deploy not only ceremony, stuff, and fables, but also mobilize urgency and threat in seductive and deceptive ways. Through repeated calls to arms, these performances enchant majority populations into believing that democracy works while segregating and discriminating against those who are most vulnerable. The criminalized and marked body—be it human, money-form, or territory—reemerges as the site of punitive and public punishment, which cajoles and coerces us to be better citizens of the state, to swear allegiance to its soil, and to reassert our faith (Mbembe 2001, 106–110). When adopted as a form of protest, this theatricality and spectacle inadvertently threatens to reaffirm the magical powers and logics of the state.


1. Importantly, the judges on the Supreme Court of India who heard public-interest litigation filed against demonetization decried the policy not as a surgical strike on black money, but rather as a “carpet bombing” of cash.


Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Das, Veena. 1995. Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1980. Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Roitman, Janet. 2013. Anti-Crisis. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.